The Legacy Of Emperor Magnus Maximus, Despite His Damnatio Memoriae

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A Roman soldier keeping a lookout over the misty hills of Britannia. (Justinas / Adobe Stock)

The Legacy Of Emperor Magnus Maximus, Despite His Damnatio Memoriae

In Roman times, a decree of Damnatio memoriae was the chief way of obliterating the memory, nearly always posthumous, of those perceived as having transgressed in some way, as was the case of Emperor Magnus Maximus, in 389 AD. Virtually erased from public consciousness in the Roman Empire, his memory nevertheless later cast a very long shadow across the Roman diocese of Britain, from whence he had emerged some years earlier as a self-proclaimed emperor – an usurper, or in Latin tyrannus – which is what he is nearly always referred to in Roman history, past and present. Nevertheless, he was acknowledged by the Eastern Emperor Theodosius I in 384 AD, and by the Roman senate either then or in 387 AD, which effectively lifts from his name the stigma of usurpation. The fact that, in the end, he was deposed and killed, meant that cancellation followed as a natural consequence. Nobody called Emperors Vespasian, Septimius Severus or Diocletian a usurper, despite each having come to power through a coup: they were successful and avoided deposition. No-one cancelled them. 

Ancient Roman copper coin of Emperor Magnus Maximus (Eduardo Estellez / Adobe Stock)

Ancient Roman copper coin of Emperor Magnus Maximus (Eduardo Estellez / Adobe Stock)

Magnus Maximus was claimed as a relation of Theodosius I, and the lengths to which the latter’s senatorial panegyricist, Pacatus, went to rubbish this, without ever quite denying it, goes a long way to confirming its essential veracity. It is not for nothing that both Maximus and the young Theodosius were fighting as brothers-in-arms under the command of the latter’s father, Count Theodosius (the Elder), in Britain in the aftermath of the so-called Barbarian Conspiracy (367-368), and probably previously in Germany under Valentinian I. Many of the people who later served them, after both had become emperors themselves, were also drawn from a similar background.


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